Judy Rickard is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts as an Immigration Reformer.
Since I came out as a lesbian in 1973 I have worked to stop discrimination and create equality in my San Francisco Bay Area community. In the early days it was hard to get people to listen to what I had to say in my fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation. It wasn't easy being different then and it wasn't easy trying to get discrimination to stop. Little by little, working in community, I helped make a difference and helped make people safer and more equal. But my story has not really changed - it just gets longer. Discrimination is still out there. When I was in my late 50s I ran into the biggest and baddest discrimination yet - from my own American government. And it was because of the best thing that had happened to me in years: I fell in love.
Nothing is more personal than who you are, who you love, and how you create family. But because of who I am and who I love and how I have created my family, America forced me to choose between spouse and career, spouse and country, spouse and family, life as I knew it and an unknown future. That's not right! No American should have to face such choices. For me and my wife, and an estimated thirty-six thousand other such families, our futures are not our own. DOMA determines them. So my work to fight discrimination amped up big time.
When I met my wife and we fell in love and committed to each other, we had no idea it would mean lots of separation and possibly leaving America, a future that still looms for us. I never thought I would have to leave my country to stay with my wife. Who would imagine that? It shouldn't be a risk, a problem, against the law to love and commit to someone born in another country. But we have paid a big price by being different, being a same-sex binational couple. We have been apart half of our time together because we are both women and not both American citizens. We have faced expenses and problems and stress that most people don't have to deal with just to be partners, family, loved ones.
When the hammer dropped five years ago, I made the right choice, the only one. I took early retirement with a reduced pension for the rest of my life so that my wife and I would be together more than apart. Why? Because Karin was detained in a cell at the San Francisco International Airport and told she was visiting the U.S. too often. She was told to get her affairs in order and leave the country for a long time. She wasn't even allowed to visit me for the usual six months. Her crime? She had been visiting too often.
I knew we had to fight this discrimination and realized we needed a tool to share the information. My book, Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law, is part memoir, part a collection of stories of others' who are discriminated against by DOMA, part a how-to on how others can help and part resource guide. It keeps getting updated with my blog and web site at http://tornapart.findhornpress.com.
Sharing my story - personal and political - is how I roll. Letters to editors, conferences, phone calls, blogs; you name it, I do it. As my book came out, I met more allies. I got more press. I talked to elected officials. I spoke at churches. I spoke to organizations and conferences. I shared with LGBT seniors and youth. But the most powerful efforts by far were dialogues with immigrant groups. We learned of each other’s struggles and found commonality. I learned to go outside my comfort zone. And it just keeps going. Sharing that story. Finding those allies. Blogging. Posting on Facebook. Creating a Facebook page for my book. Creating a portrait project of same-sex binational couples. Creating a Facebook page for that. Working on the solution we all need. Sharing. Connecting. Making friends. Making community.
So here I am, being honored as a Cesar Chavez Champion of Change. Something else new has happened to me because of my story. But the truth is very personal. Here it is: immigration, like sexual orientation, is not a skin color, or a country of origin, or a religion, or a culture, or an ethnicity. It's all that and more. It's not "them." It's "us." We need a country where we are all "us." Let's make it so!
Some people think of immigrants and hold the word "illegal" in their hearts and minds. Some people think of the LGBT community and hold the word "immoral" in their hearts and minds. Imagine how that makes people like me and my wife feel! We live in that world where these two intersect - it's like pouring gas on a fire when people who hold illegal and immoral in their hearts and minds think of LGBT immigrants and same-sex binational families. These categories, LGBT and immigrant, are the two most volatile subjects in politics today. Who is going to help us? Who will include us in comprehensive, common sense immigration reform?
DOMA is at the Supreme Court this week. Three bills are working their way slowly through Congress. President Obama has spoken out for people like me and my wife. I'm 65 now. My wife is 72. I sure hope to spend whatever remains of my golden years being able to do other things than fight to keep my wife with me. In my country we say that's the American dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I'd like an unimpeded chance at that. So would lots of others.
Judy Rickard is the author of Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law and works to promote civil rights.